One in five women who use sunbeds are ‘tanorexics’

One in five young women who use sunbeds are addicted to the high dose of ultraviolet radiation that leaves them bronzed, warns new research.

The ‘troubling’ findings suggests that ‘indoor tanning dependency’ is worryingly common in young women, especially in those with depression, experts said. 

The survey of young women who have used indoor tanning at least once in the past year showed that more than one in five of them have signs of being addicted to the high dose of UV radiation.

And women with symptoms of depression were three times more likely to meet the criteria for having a tanning dependence.

Experts warn the findings should be a red flag to doctors who may prescribe sunbed tanning to people who suffer from seasonal affective disorder (SAD), rather than offering them a light box free of cancer risk. 

Experts warn doctors need to do more to teach people about the dangers of tanning – particularly young women and people with depression who appear to be most susceptible to tanning addiction


For years, doctors have been prescribing sunbed tanning to people with seasonal affective disorder (SAD). 

The disorder affects people in the winter, when the temperature drops and the days become darker. Changes in light, body temperature and vitamin D levels lead to seasonal depression. 

A common treatment is a dose of light and warmth, which can be found in the form of a light box. 

However, there are scores of doctors who report improvements in their patients after visiting sunbeds. 

But experts warn the prescription is irresponsible given the high risk of melanoma. 

This new study by Georgetown also highlights the propensity for women and people with depression to become hooked on the dangerous activity. 

The findings from Georgetown University Medical Center, published online by the journal Cancer, Epidemiology, Biomarkers and Prevention, suggest that for some young women, education about cancer risks from tanning may not be enough to make them stop.

Research leader Dr Darren Mays, assistant professor of oncology at Georgetown, said: ‘It’s troubling. We know that tanning, especially early in life, increases the risk of skin cancers, and is associated with early-onset cancers.’ 

One indoor tanning exposure increases the risk of melanoma by around 20 percent, and increases the risk of non-melanoma skin cancer by 29 to 67 percent. With each additional indoor tanning exposure, the lifetime cancer risk increases by about one or two percent.

Indoor tanning currently accounts for about 10 percent of melanoma and non-melanoma skin cancers in the US.

Dr Mays said indoor tanning is more harmful than tanning outdoors because tanning beds can deliver higher levels of UVA and UVB light.

While figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have shown that indoor tanning has been declining overall, about 15 percent of young adult non-Hispanic white women in the US reported tanning in the past year.

For women ages 17 to 18, the rates are higher: 20 percent to 25 percent of that group reported tanning.

Dr Mays said: ‘It’s promising that the rates have declined, but there are subgroups where it remains a pervasive behavior.’ 

His team surveyed 400 non-Hispanic white women between the ages of 18 and 30 and had been tanning in the last 12 months. 

Those who met the criteria for indoor tanning dependence were more likely to weigh the perceived benefits, such as an improved appearance, over the perceived risks, including developing cancer.

But the strongest association the researchers observed was between indoor tanning dependence and depression.

Previous studies have shown frequent tanners show a preference to UV light even when blinded, and experience a dopamine response in their brains similar to other addictions.

Other research in mice has also found that UV light stimulates an opioid response in their brains.

Dr Mays said: ‘The opioid activation pathway is a really interesting area that we want to learn more about.’

He says it has implications for reducing indoor tanning, particularly among young women.

Dr Mays added: ‘We tested interventions that were about risk communication, but for this population with tanning dependence, the thing that stands out to us was not only the association between attitudes and beliefs, but their depressive symptoms.

‘The intervention model needs to go above and beyond informing about risks to include treating those symptoms.’

He said further research may find a combination of counseling and medications may be best for treating tanning dependence, similar to other addiction treatments.